Photo: Drought

Unsettling the Anthropocene narrative through a postcolonial lens

Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro

Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro

Sandrine is an English Ph.D. student in the University of Limerick, Ireland. Sandrine’s research centres on third generation African writers, such as Afrofuturists, who have emerged during the era of late liberalism and who have introduced multiple and nuanced perspectives for reflecting on African lives and aspirations.

This article engages with the scholarly discourse of Anthropocene. Human activity’s influence over the environment is central to the Anthropocene narrative. It measures the human impact on the environment with examples of climate change issues, such as an increased carbon footprint. I will reflect on Bryan Mealer and William Kamkwamba’s biography The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which pushes the boundaries of the representation of climate change within the setting of the African continent. The biography challenges and goes beyond the dominance of the Anthropocene being solely a Western paradigm. It acts as a counter-narrative to the dominant Western coverage of climate change as an issue that only affects the white body and landscape.
 
Ecocriticism looks at the intimate relationship between literature and the environment, paving the way for human beings to have a better understanding of their surrounding environment and to develop a more in-depth relationship with the non-human world. However, Eurocentric environmental discourse leaves out the postcolonial voice. Ecocriticism is continuously presented within a singular Eurocentric and Americanised frame with little to no room for African voices to be included in this important conversation. Environmental issues within the African continent are brushed aside and seen as just another issue to add to the myriad of issues already present in the continent. This is no surprise as authors on environmental issues and anthologies are all tied around a singular homogenous setting.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2009) (3), a biography written by Bryan Mealer about and with William Kamkwamba, offers a postcolonial reading of the Anthropocene a western discourse that feeds into this idea of humanism that asserts the vulnerability of human being and their relationship with the environment. These characteristics are replicated in the biography by Bryan Mealer, a Western author that showcases this African youth who does something for his village. I use this book, even though authored by a Westerner, as it nonetheless showcases something about African innovation and agency that is rich and nuanced and exceeds the limitations of the Anthropocene discourse.

Despite the limitations of the Anthropocene, namely stipulating the Western rational that alleges the human as the agent of climate change, I acknowledge that climate change is real and does have a real impact on our planet. As such, I am turning to my chosen text to try see what I can rescue of this larger ecocriticism and conversation about climate change as African voices are not heard nor included in the international climate change debates, even though they are one of the most affected continents. African writers are centralising African voices to depict the lived realities of those who are faced with environmental degradation. They bear witness to the overlooked and downplayed environmental issues that are apparent in the continent. They are providing a new environmental perspective that must be given the same agency as their Eurocentric counter parts.

The biography The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (3) is a first person narration account told in a chronologically linear format. The memoir begins in 1994 when Kamkwamba is just six years old and ends in 2008 when he is twenty years old. The text is split into fifteen chapters and begins with an epilogue that gives the readers a glimpse of what Kamkwamba is about to achieve. The rest of the book contextualizes the achievement. Kamkwamba lives in the village Wimbe that relies predominantly on farming for survival; Wimbe village is near the city Kasungu in Malawi, a southeast African country and is a rural village that lacks most of the infrastructural features of modernity, such as electricity. He lives with his father Trywell Kamkwamba, his mother Agnes Kamkwamba, and his six sisters. His family endures famines in 2000, 2002, and 2004. This relentless brush with death motivates Kamkwamba to build an ‘electric wind generator’ to ensure that he never feels helpless in the face of climate change again. Kamkwamba self-assigns the role of creating an alternative future where he and his family overcome the effects of climate change that compromise not only their survival but also the survival of the people in Wimbe and other surrounding communities.

Kamkwamba highlights how Africans work in a multi-dimensional spectrum where they must fight concurrently a variety of challenging issues. His biography showcases how abject poverty and food scarcity, complicated by unpredictable cycles of disease and crop failure, are related to quick-fix solutions for ash-stranded communities willing to engage in short-sighted strategies. These shortsighted strategies further the devastating impact of climate change, such as the deforestation of the land.

I will focus my argument on two distinctive moments in the memoir, which highlight the discrepancy of climate change issues. To start is Kamkwamba’s first encounter with climate change that led to the famine in 2000. At that moment he is an eight-year-old child. During this famine, he becomes hyper-aware of the meaning of abject poverty as droughts have left the community and his family devastated. From this moment onwards, Kamkwamba becomes aware of the uncertainty of his future. This brush of death provides him a new, deep-found awareness of the changing nature of the environment and the impact it has on his accessibility to the future. The second instance of confronting climate change is in chapter nine, in the year 2005 when he is a thirteen-year-old boy. Kamkwamba realizes how science has given him a sense of agency over his community’s future to escape the passive pattern of watching climate change destroy everything around him. 

Firstly, the famine of 2000 has catastrophic effects on the farming community in Wimbe. The famine is caused by the changing weather patterns associated with the late arrival of the rain. Kamkwamba recalls the anxious nature of waiting for the rain to arrive:

“if all goes well, the steady rains of December and January will have allowed the seedlings to grow” (3).

Farmers relied on the rain for the survival of the seedlings but also the survival of their livelihoods. In Malawi, steady rains were always expected to arrive in December and January. The farmers for years were used to these patterns of seasonal changes. Any slight change inevitably causes panic as the farmers are now stepping into uncharted territory where their livelihoods are at risk.
 

Photo: Drought
A desolate dusty brown riverbed with dry broken clay soil. Photo @ Grant Durr for Unsplash

Moreover, climate change is understood differently in the African context because of that embodied initiative knowledge of the farmer working the land. The farmer is dependent on the land as he or she has a deep-rooted connection to it. The changing season also plays an integral role in grounding time in human life and sustenance rather than abstracting it. Kamkwamba touches on this relationship by explaining how being a farmer is seen as an integral element of Malawian culture. In Wimbe, every man is a farmer, and this is viewed as a rite of passage and a cultural norm. Even from a young age, Kamkwamba is aware of this deep-rooted connection. Kamkwamba proudly states,

“Our district is the most fertile in all Malawi, often called the breadbasket of the country” (3).

All farmers have the intuitiveness of knowing how to interact with their natural environments to have fertile land and the impact of the rain for their livelihood. The lack of certainty with the rain season brings about a new sense of anxiety as the villagers are now in an unfamiliar territory and their connection with the land is in jeopardy. The villagers are now approaching the future with dread and fear. They are stepping into the unknown because of climate change.

In the age of the Anthropocene, everyone’s future becomes uncertain in the face of climate change, but the Africans are the ones that are hit the hardest even though they contribute less to the deterioration of our climate compared to their western counterparts. It becomes an almost impossible task to project futurity onto the African continent. Nnimmo Bassey explains how

“[w]hen the world literally burns from climate and political turmoil, it is possible for Africa and other vulnerable regions to be overlooked”.

The vulnerable nations on the African continent and their people are overlooked due to the long-lasting negative representation of the African body and land being disposable. Africa is perceived as less worthy and unimportant when it comes to tackling climate change.

Throughout the text, Kamkwamba continues to give detailed examples of the different adversity that he and his family face moving away from overgeneralisation of climate change effects on the African continent. Kamkwamba focuses on incidents that have left devasting effects on his family and then contextualises them regarding his wider community of Wimbe. The text, therefore, grounds itself in a very local context. It is grounded in a singular community and within that singular community within a single family. This leads the text to be viewed in a local, intimate, and specific manner. This kind of specificity allows for his agency and innovation to come through, not as this kind of larger revolution, but as a solution to a very specific problem that has a larger effect on his entire community.

Moreover, the text exposes the chivalrous arrogance of the West trying to find solutions for the Africans. Kamkwamba points to the improvisation dimensions of solutions. When Kamkwamba is faced with the issue of climate change, he self-assigns himself the role to go to the scrapyard to find trash to make a prototype of the wind generator. Kamkwamba does not become overwhelmed with the unpredictable nature of climate change. Instead, he takes on education that provides more chances for a better life. It allows him to plan for a future, a future for himself, his family, and his community.

Through the lived experience and constant brush of death because of climate change, Kamkwamba is forced to search for an alternative future, where he and his family are no longer helpless in the face of climate change. The wind generator acts as a form of escapism from the present suffering and provides a glimpse of the possibility of the future, where his family is well equipped to combat climate change. Through the creation of the windmill, he starts to create a new sense of hope amongst the community. The windmill is used to generate power for mobile phones, electricity for houses, and energy for pumping water. It helps irrigate the crops in the family farm and other surrounding areas. He proudly states

“What will I do next? I thought. What was in my future, after having come this far?” (3).

The future is no longer something that he fears or sees as a source of anxiety. It acts as a place of promise and possibility, one that does not just stop with him.

It is essential to point out how Kamkwamba does not try to launch a revolution nor a manifesto. This unsettles the Anthropocene discourse that connects the human relationship with climate change with the huge concepts around it. Humanist scholars such as William Steffen, John McNeill, and Paul Crutzen all touch on how the Anthropocene focuses on the dynamic shift of the human being and their interaction with the environment. Human beings play a dominant role when it comes to the conversation about the planet, as at its core, the Anthropocene measures the human impact on the environment. This text becomes very focused, very minor, and very specific—which inevitably unsettles the huge context that overpowers by its sheer enormity the term climate change. Kamkwamba is a testament to how Africans continuously prove that they can tell their stories and do not need the West to speak on their behalf.

Although Bryan Mealer is involved in bringing the biography to light, Kamkwamba showcases how an African is more than capable of being intelligent, creative, innovative, and capable of telling his story about environmental issues. The chosen text illuminates how African writers are tapping into the discussion of the Anthropocene and environmental crisis. Yet, their voices are not taken as seriously as their Western counterparts. On an international scale, the African voice is silenced, if not altogether missing, when it comes to addressing the impact of climate change in the African continent. Yet, individuals in the Third World are disproportionately impacted by climate change by comparison to their Western counterparts. African climatologist Chris Shisanya observes,

“Frequently, African voices are absent from the international climate debate” (6).

During the colonial period, Africa was considered primitive, while now in the neo-colonial time it is still considered a helpless place incapable of solving its problems and waiting for the benevolence of the West. This chosen text illuminates alternative ways of understanding environmental crisis that informs alternative ways of understanding climate change by recognizing local knowledge, production, and solutions in an African context.

To conclude, there is a re-emergence of planetary consciousness, where it is no longer acceptable to brush aside environmental issues that are decimating the African landscape and curtailing the chances of accessing a future. This recognition is seen through the work of third-generation African writers. Third-generation African writers are tackling this issue by looking at new creative ways to address how environmental issues within the African continent halt the inhabitant’s ability to access the future. Within the African continent, there are multiple and competing ways how climate change affects the continent. Environmental issues within the continent expose how environmental degradation jeopardizes the livelihoods of the global poor. This revelation of the jeopardy nature once again is ignored due to the geopolitical setting of those inhabitants. The future for those individuals that reside in these areas that are festered with issues of petrol-violence, instability, and uncertainty of what is yet to come is brushed aside and left on the fringe of society.

Writers like Nigerian Saro-Wiwa changed the conversation of what counts as environmentalism activism from an African perspective. Rob Nixon explains,

“Saro-Wiwa understood that environmentalism needs to be re-imagined through the experiences of the minorities who are barely visible on the global economic periphery, where transnationals in the extraction business—be it oil, mining, or timber—operate with maximum impunity” (5).

Wiwa demonstrates how using the form of ecocriticism within a literary platform paves way in re-imagining how to effectively capture environmental issues that capture minorities’ experiences.

Contemporary African writers, third-generation, Afro-futurist, who are exploring environmental issues in the continent, are humanizing those who face environmental issues head-on. Writers such as Helon Habila (Nigeria), Bessie Head (South Africa), Augustine Nchouje (Cameroon), and Doreen Baingana (Uganda) are leading the way for discussing environmental issues that are affecting Africans in their respective geographies (7). Eurocentric writers, filmmakers and photographers, when talking about the African character, always talk about them in a homogenised setting, one that appears to be far removed and oftentimes in a dehumanising nature. African writers are creating a new sense of ‘unseen’ urgency of the immediacy of environmental issues. African writers tackling environmental crises showcase creative and imaginative ways in which they can overturn these unseen sights and shine a light on them.

 

Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro

 

References:

  1. Bassey, N., “ A Year of Record Climate Disasters in Africa” , Roape, 2020.
  2. Booth, N.S., “Time and Change in African Traditional Thought”, Journal of religion in Africa, 1975.
  3. Kamkwamba, W. and Mealer, B., “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”, HarperCollins, 2009.
  4. Mavhunga, C., “Inertia and Development Approaches to Africa: Towards African Mobilities”, Thresholds, 2011.
  5. Nixon, R., “Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor”, Harvard University Press, 2011.
  6. Shisanya , C.A. et al., “Milestones in Green Transition and Climate Compatible Development in Eastern and Southern Africa”, Organisation for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa, 2015.
  7. Slaymaker, W., “Ecoing the Other(s): The Call of Global Green and Black African Responses”, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 2001.
Received: 01.07.21, Ready: 03.08.21. Editors: Luisa Vernizzi, Jessica Brown

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